The Future Of Secularism: Chapter 10

WHAT MAKES ME A MAN

The game was that night.

Thousands upon thousands converged for the game. I went with Absal and Salman. After all that had happened with Khattab, I hadn’t realized how nervous I had become. For once, I had the chance to relax. We wore red and white shirts, and Salman brought the national flag -- without the Allah seal -- and we stared across the stadium, where thousands of our Iranian brothers and sisters had gathered.

Absal was bothered by the flag Salman brought. I was bothered (fascinated, intrigued, confused) that he was so concerned.

But still, Absal demanded: "Why didn’t you bring the new flag?"

Salman said it was because "I didn’t think we should. It was just a concession man, and I’m not going to give into it. It’s not like anyone’s going to mark me for holding this flag — as if I’m a terrorist or one of those people."

This greatly irritated Absal, though it didn’t seem to affect me at the time. Rather, I was confused more that anyone would care so much. Absal was speaking with a raised voice: "That’s not our flag anymore. Man, when we play the Iranians, we should show them who we really are. We should show them that we have one flag. Not two. They’ll laugh at us and think, ‘these stupid Turks, they don’t even know who they are.’ I don’t want us to be laughed at. We are Turks and we are one people in this country, right? Don’t show division on satellite TV."

Salman was annoyed by Absal’s tirade. "Look, Absal. I mean nobody’s going to react that way. Damn, chill out kid. If I didn’t know you any better, I’d just wonder. But maybe this was the only flag I had. They are kinda expensive, you know. Maybe I didn’t have the cash to go buy another flag right when we decide to change ours."

We were cut off by a deafening roar that erupted from the Iranian crowd. Their team filed into the stadium and Persian flags filled the air.

Both our flag and their flag — at least the official ones hanging in the front of the stadium — had the prominent ‘Allah’ seal on them. It made me think about all of us, Persians and Turks and so forth, who were at the stadium. What made us different from the well-off in Europe, America and the rest of the world? What gave us a meaning, a purpose, an identity? The royal seal was now gone from our flag. But it never stood for anything anyone cared about. The ‘Allah’ seal, on the other hand, meant a lot more.

So was Islam the only glue that kept us from vanishing into the nowhere we were so dangerously close to? Were our cultures now so dead that without faith, without even that ‘Allah’ seal on our flags, we would be nothing but so much human flotsam floating in an endless, purposeless and pointless stream?  

To stem the Islamist tide, governments such as ours cooperated with other Muslim governments to promote sports matches and cultural exchanges. It was a good idea, because everyone looked forward to it and the opposition was temporarily neutralized by it. Secularists, Islamists — we all got together to share in the fun. It was one of the most anticipated soccer matches of the year, coming on our victory over Pakistan in a particularly suspenseful match.

As the players gathered on the field, thousands of Iranians screamed for victory in Persian. We screamed back in Turkish.

Except, of course, both sides were saying the same thing. Our chants and their cheers were just like different dialects of Arabic.

I felt like laughing, and so I did — loudly. Nobody cared why. Salman and Absal got up half-way through the game... they said they wanted to get some food. After they left, I stopped smiling. The fact that the Persians and us Turks had screamed the same thing bothered me. (Not that I have anything against Persians; they write good poetry, they make good movies, they scare the hell out of the West and their women are gorgeous).

I knew the people across from us were the upper class Persians, the ones who could afford the plane flight (or train ride) to our nearby country, but they were reasonably into Islam. After all, it had been decades since their Revolution, and the new system had set up a reasonably prosperous country. And they said what we said. In Arabic. (Well sort of). So we weren’t that different. What kept us apart from them? Was our Turkic heritage sufficient enough for us to draw a boundary to say, ‘this is for us and beyond it, for you?’

I didn’t know the answer to that question, either.

I shook my head and tried to get the thoughts out. Stupid Arabs. One day we’d have to invade their lands, in the name of their religion, just to give it back: "Here you go," we’d say, "Thanks for the last millennium and a half but Islam just doesn’t do it for us anymore."

But we couldn’t just give it back, cuz’ it was ours now. It was offered to us. We took it. Now we didn’t want it, or at least a lot of us didn’t. But nobody was there to take it away.

I guess you can’t hate anyone like you hate your conqueror. Nor can you love anyone quite like you love your conqueror. Maybe that’s why us Turks and Persians had so much trouble finding a way to relate to the Arabs. 

I was absorbed in this thought when I felt someone sit down right next to me. Surprised, I turned sideways quickly and nearly pulled a muscle.

"Hey, salam..."

Her voice was a little nervous. It was her -- my Calvin Klein girl. I forgot about Persia and stared at her.

"Salam. What’s up?" I asked. I tried to sound casual, but I felt nervous inside. I hoped it didn’t show. I was gonna say ‘I didn’t know you were here,’ but that was probably the dumbest thing I could have said, so I decided not to say it. We got to talking. She had spotted me while coming back from the bathroom.

Her name was Sophia. I don’t think she cared much about Islam, but she was -- in some ways -- a product of a Muslim society. Even though she was wearing tight clothes, she had a wholesome innocence to her. I found it to be the most attractive thing in the world. I don’t think she’d ever had a boyfriend, which I appreciated. Girls like that (and they were rare even among the upper-class) just seemed cheap. I had my experiences with girls before, but, well, I never liked it much. It always felt so artificial, so faked. Of course, all this philosophizing and reflecting didn’t have a point, because she was attracting me. We clicked instantly.

She was studying anthropology at the Academy. So she was smart, too. I had to make sure not to say something stupid, which I generally did anyway, so I decided to just act like myself, and let her know I was stupid right off the bat. If Khattab were here, he would’ve told me that was because I wanted to be noticed.

But why in God’s name did I have to think of Khattab? As I tried to focus back on her, in the distance, a gigantic Iranian flag caught my eye. It looked magnificent waving in the wind, but what I noticed was the large ‘Allah’ seal in the center. 

I looked up to heaven briefly and thanked God. Before me was a beautiful girl, and what was going through my head? Suddenly Islam was everywhere. I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone broke out with the adhan just then.

She turned to me, "Is something wrong?"

"Nah, it’s..." I thought: be honest Hayy... so I was honest... "I was just looking at the Iranian flag. I like the colors."

"Think they’ll win?"

"Yeah, probably. We suck out there."

"I love Iran," she whispered. I don’t know why she did but I found that so incredibly cute (at this moment everything, including the bag of chips she had in her hand, was incredibly cute.) I could have just grabbed her. Instead I asked her a question.

"Why’s that?"

"I just love their culture. It’s so like ours, you know? I just want to travel and see Iran... I think their language is beautiful. And I love their movies."

So we talked about Persian movies. They were tolerated here; they didn’t really bring in too much in the way of political messages, but they weren’t all that great to have. After all, why would we have anything to do with Iran? They were an Islamic Republic.

Sophia and I kept talking. She knew some Persian. All I knew were our language’s Arabic loan-words, which I tried to pronounce with that Persian accent, thereby barely convincing her of my ability to pass in that language. All I wanted to do, though, was kiss her. Weren’t there rules for this kind of thing? Like, say she’s giving certain signals, then you can kiss her. Otherwise no and stay away. She talked about Persian calligraphy, and how she had a Qur’an written in Persian script. Her mention of the Qur’an drove me wild for some reason.

We kept talking, about the kinds of things people talk about. Of course, being a good Turkish girl, she talked about her family in the best of terms. She wanted to show me a picture of her baby niece, since she thought she was "soooo cute" (her words, not mine), but she dropped it as she pulled it out of her pocket. She bent forward to pick it up, and suddenly I wasn’t looking at the Iranian flag anymore.

While she was down there, she happened to turn around and caught me staring at her... You know... I tried to look away but this was pretty obvious. For once, I wished Khattab were around. Maybe a grenade would’ve been lobbed at me, saving me from having to answer what I knew she was going to ask.

She had this strange smile on her face. Part angry, part teasing, she didn’t know if she should be flattered, mad, flustered, amused or disappointed.

She demanded: "What the hell were you looking at, Hayy?"

I thought in desperation, but all I could think of was Iran.

So naturally I answered: "Nisf-e jahan." 

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